August 6, 2021

Alternatives (or Additions) to the Standard Interview: The In-Basket Exercise

The Managers’ Corner:

In-basket exercises represent an extension from what the case study attempts to do by including more:

  • information that must be absorbed
  • integration among the various parts of that information
  • vehicles for providing that information (e-mails, reports, memos, texts of phone calls and organizational charts)
  • variety in the forms of response (letters, e-mails, notations on calendars, agendas for meetings etc.).

The best in-baskets are those designed by the organization itself.  That is because the problems (called “items”) are ones that managers would have to confront on the job in the context of their specific organization and its norms, policies and practices.  When recruiting for managers of the 21st century, in-baskets help identify each candidate’s qualities in areas such as:

  • time-management
  • organizational skills
  • writing ability
  • decision-making styles
  • awareness of equity and environmental concerns
  • planning skills.

Let’s look at three different aspects of using the in-basket technique.

  1. Form and Content: A typical in-basket exercise includes a detailed scenario describing the situation and the role of the candidate.  It usually involves the candidate having to solve a series of problems that have been “left on the desk” by the incumbent manager who has had to leave the office for some reason for a few days.  In-baskets usually have many enclosures (hard copy or electronic) but could include items such as a staff list, a calendar, blank memo forms and letterhead, etc.  Traditionally in a ninety-minute in-basket, there are about 12 items.  These take the form of presenting issues that need to be addressed – client complaint, request for a meeting, staff problem, reports for review, budget items, technological issues – whatever is both topical and germane to the organization for which the in-basket has been developed.  Many of these items can be collected over the course of a week from people in the organization.  (When this writer was developing in-baskets for manager selection in a large organization, he usually phoned individual managers in the organization, asked for their “problem of the week” and used the problem as an item.  There was no shortage of items from which to choose!)
  2. Delivery Method: Typically, the in-basket is sent to a candidate online or handed out in an in-person process.  The candidate is given 90 minutes (suggested) to complete all items or as many items as possible.  At the end of the ninety-minutes the responses are collected and then graded.
  3. Assessment: To be assessed fully and fairly, an in-basket exercise should be accompanied by a scoring booklet in which all items are assessed against the indicators associated with the qualifications and expectations identified in the job description as well as any of the generic skills noted above (organization, communication etc.).  In most cases, each of these indicators should be present in at least two-three of the items for triangulation purposes.  From this analysis, a report can be generated against the various criteria on how the candidate did overall – and then shared with the candidate orally and/or in writing.  In addition, the report could include suggestions for professional improvement – not on the performance of the exercise but rather on the indicators themselves.  A scoring booklet should also contain a template for a performance report and, if desired, a mechanism for grading the overall performance.  The result is a data-based report that gives assessors and the decision-makers alike (if they are separate groups rather than the same individuals) a very sound basis for determining the outcome of the competition.  Like any effective assessment system, it allows decision-makers to see what candidates “can do” as opposed to what candidates “say they can do” in an interview – this time in a real-life simulation.

You may be thinking: “This is a pretty good idea, but it will take a lot of work to get it started.”  That is true.   Once the organization has experience developing an in-basket and the scoring booklet, it is surprising how quickly new ones can be put together.

Bendel can help by writing the first in-basket and scoring book for your organization as a template.  If you are not interested using an in-basket for selection purposes, why not try using it for professional development of your management staff?

Dr. Dan

Want to know more about in-baskets and our services regarding them?  Check out our Management Individual Coaching  on The Manager’s In-Basket”.